Indian woman says Australian boss exploited her after her husband got cancer

Harjinder* kept working, even when her pay didn’t come. She kept working even when her husband was diagnosed with liver cancer.

The couple is now forced to return to India, despite Harjinder being owed, she alleges, more than $60,000 in unpaid wages. She is worried her husband will not be able to access critical drugs and treatment available in Australia. But they have no choice. The price for migrant workers complaining about exploitation, when visa sponsorships are controlled by employers, is a one-way ticket home.

Harjinder found retail work in Queensland with an employer who had agreed to sponsor her for a 187 visa, a migrant program for skilled workers in regional areas.

“He said I will pay you full wages and superannuation but he never did, he never paid me a dollar,” Harjinder said. “He said he will pay me later, pay me later but never paid me.”

“Now he is asking me for money, for money if he wants to process my application. He is a cancer patient, my husband, we have no money to pay him.”

Harjinder estimates she is owed more than $60,000. She kept records showing her working hours – mostly 7am to 7pm with an extended break in between – for about 19 months. Her notes also show frequent trips to the hospital to be with her husband. She believes the employer took advantage of her husband’s cancer diagnosis, which meant she had to miss shifts for which she was not being paid.

“He asked me to pay him cash and then he will put in my [visa] application. He knows [my husband] needs good treatment in Australia.”

Harjinder has complained to the Fair Work ombudsman, and sent detailed records of her work history. The case exposes a disconnect between the operation of workplace law and immigration law. Migrant workers are often wholly reliant on their employer for visa sponsorship. It is a situation that is known to lead to exploitation. Those who stand up for their rights often lose their visa, and then have just 28 days to leave the country.

“It happens more often than people realise,” says Giri Sivaraman, the head of employment law at Maurice Blackburn. Sivaraman headed an underpayment case against 7-Eleven, which included representing several migrant workers.

“The issue is that these workers are particularly vulnerable. They need the visa to be able to work and they’re desperate to keep the visa. They’re under enormous pressure and can be manipulated by the employer.

“I’ve certainly encountered situations of passports being confiscated off employees. ‘If you complain about it, I’ll just revoke the visa and you’ll be deported.’”

Sivaraman says immigration authorities are often unconcerned about employment problems.

“The only oversight from the [immigration] department’s perspective is whether they’ve got a valid visa. There’s no compulsory investigation or monitoring. By the time any complaint they make is investigated, they probably have to leave.”

He said the case was also a strong example of the need for criminal wage theft laws.

“A worker gets severely underpaid and then has to work in excess of their visa conditions. And they [often] work in breach of their visa conditions just to make ends meet.

“People think about slavery as being locked up in chains, but we’re pretty close to slavery here. It’s bonded labour.”

Guardian Australia attempted to contact Harjinder’s former employer, but he did not return calls.

Harjinder and her husband had flights to India booked for 20 January. A Fair Work investigation into the employer will continue once they’ve left the country.

“But we have to go,” Harjinder says. “We don’t have any other option to stay. The rules are we have 28 days.”